It’s sort of like a movie about a successful, career-oriented person who, stuck in a rut and tired of routine, gets the chance to go back to school and start all over again.
You might have seen them in your psychology lecture or your sports management class. They sit near the front and chat jokingly with the professors as if they know a secret we could only figure out with time and experience.
They’re the Knight-Wallace Fellows — a group of mid-career journalists who take off one academic year to attend classes and do research at the University — and if you listen, they could teach you a thing or two.
Each year, about two dozen journalists from around the world are accepted into the fellowship, which allows them to audit University classes and go to school for the sake of learning and growing rather than the grade.
“(It has) given me a chance to take a step back from journalism, and get back to the day to day, use my brain in different ways,” said Knight-Wallace Fellow Richard Deitsch, who is a special projects editor at Sports Illustrated.
The Fellows are able to audit any class— some take the chance to actually study rocket science without the risk of failing — but the official reason for their stays are individual research projects.
Having covered the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Deitsch is now stepping back to analyze the dynamics of the games. But for many of the Fellows, anything they could see here must pale in comparison to some of their experiences on the job — like being inside the hole that Saddam Hussein was found in, which Robin Pomeroy experienced as a correspondent for Reuters.
Fellows generally take up private sublets around Ann Arbor, but when they’re not rubbing elbows with students, they meet up at the historic Wallace House on Oxford Road.
Adorned with decades-old photographs of past Fellows, large charcoal editorial cartoons, ink-pen renderings of journalism bigwigs and a table holding every major publication you can think of, Wallace House radiates journalism.
The work of Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant cover the walls on the first floor. Caricatures of a big-toothed Sarah Palin and a curvaceous Hillary Clinton hang above the couch. Over the fireplace is a big-eared rendering of President Obama on the face of a nickel, and in the corner is an image of Henry Kissinger’s head on a plated fish.
The house is named for Mike Wallace, a University alum who worked as a correspondent on “60 Minutes”. Wallace and the Knight Foundation, which gives grants to foster the field of journalism, founded the fellowship about 30 years ago.
Along with the posh hangout, the Fellows enjoy the company of colleagues hailing from major publications across the world. It’s just like the social dynamic of the dorms, except no one has to sneak to buy alcohol and everyone has more to talk about than high school memories.
“There’s sort of like a “Real World” or “Survivor” dynamic to it,” said Knight-Wallace Fellow Rona Kobell, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. “You put 12 people from different backgrounds together and see if they can get along.”
Knight-Wallace Director Charles Eisendrath has seen many a Fellow come and go, but said what always remains is the family-like chemistry of the house, including the funny moments.
“When we first got the grand piano donated, (we) went to pick it up at a little recording studio with a U-Haul and a case of beer, just a bunch of Fellows,” he said. “When we got it into the house, no one really thought about how much a piano weighed, and it went right through the floor.”
It might seem like a dozen globetrotting journalists would tire of life in a college town, but many of the Fellows said they’ve taken to Ann Arbor.
“I’ve just been impressed by it,” Deitsch said. “It’s just less sleepy than I thought it would be. Reminds me a little bit of New York in that whatever you’re passionate about, you can find it here.
“But the weather sucks,” he added.
Some of the Fellows said it could be a little jarring to don a book bag for the first time in decades and walk into a classroom where even the lecturer seems to be younger than you.
Kobell was not surprised that the presence of her and the Fellows on campus confuses some University students.
“When I went to school here, the fellowship wasn’t very known,” she said.
Deitsch, who has written for Sports Illustrated for 12 years, said the introductory creative writing workshop he took was a novel experience.
“We had to write and get our work workshopped around the room,” he said. “What’s more fun than getting ten 20-year-old girls telling you what’s wrong with your writing?”
Pomeroy, a Rome correspondent for Reuters, took a screenwriting class and realized just how different his life experiences have been compared to the average University student.
“I’ve heard a couple of their script ideas, and it’s very interesting to see what they write about,” he said. “I’m not American. I’m not 20 years old. And there’s just such a huge difference. They write about kids in high school or kids in high school who’ve just come to University.”
The fellows attend a seminar at Wallace House twice per week. Such notable speakers as Madeleine Albright, Bill Cosby, Ira Glass, Steve Forbes, Michael Moore and Gloria Steinem have given talks beside the house fireplace.
There are similar programs as this at Stanford and Harvard, but the University of Michigan’s fellowship stands out for its emphasis on travel. Each class of Fellows takes two domestic and two international trips. Already this year, the Fellows have been to Buenos Aires and sat down to talk with Argentinean Vice President Julio Cobos. Later this month, they’ll be in Moscow and chat with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union.
One thing to be noted of the Fellows is their cultural and journalistic. Former Fellows include journalists like Jill Abramson, a managing editor The New York Times, and ABC News anchor Charles Gibson.
This year’s Fellows hail from publications like the BBC and The Washington Post and from as far away as Madrid, Moscow, Prague, Buenos Aires, London, Seoul and Israel.
It might confuse the typical University student who’s itching to study abroad in Italy, but Pomeroy said he has enjoyed the change from his normal post in Rome.
“Already it is life-changing, and I’ve only been here three weeks,” he said.